Paper or Pixels: Book shopping in 2015

I forgot my password. A new one would be emailed, but I wasn’t sure to which account and, truth be told, I probably didn’t know the password for that either. With a sigh I closed the kindle app on my phone.

I am always encouraging my kids to read, whether it’s an e-book, comic book, or Guinness Book of World Records. So, the other day when my daughter asked for Anne Frank’s Diary, I had to deliver. After learning that I couldn’t just download Anne Frank without my password, my next idea was the library. A cursory search online showed that the book was “UNAVAILABLE” and it turned out the library was closed for renovations anyway. Down two strikes I followed a crazy hunch. Pro Libris, a used bookstore on Third Street, might save me.

Unlike a lot of places in Bangor right now, Pro Libris looks almost exactly like it did 20 years ago. Walls of bookcases are neatly filled with a wide variety of used books. And, sure enough, owner Eric Furry knew exactly where to look for a copy of Anne Frank’s Diary. For two dollars and change my awesome dad status was restored, but as I left the store something else made me smile. Without having to provide an account ID or password, credit card information, or email address, buying that book was a refreshingly straightforward transaction. Hadn’t computers put an end to those by now?

With the rising popularity of digital content over the last ten years, bookstores have been on the wrong side of a trend. As hard copy fell out of fashion, stores like Borders and B. Dalton’s went out of business. The writing was on the wall and the wall was a small glowing screen. Readers could now have a library in the palm of their hand, and a new book at the touch of a button.

It was easy to like this new format, and hard to defend traditional books. They were bulky, and their production involved cutting down trees. Books, in their familiar format, weren’t cool. We were convinced that the history, the heft, the paper, the smell, the sound of flipping through dog-eared pages, the underlined sentences, the crack of the spine, and the general presence of a favorite tome, were meaningless in a new world of ones and zeroes.

Nowhere are those intangibles more on display than when you walk into Pro Libris. There is the relaxed atmosphere you’d expect in a used bookstore, and a general sense that you’ve fallen way off the grid. A long-haired man rings you up while a long-haired cat guards the register. You’re not sure if you should pick up a Murakami novel or if you just stepped into one. It’s simply a great place to find a book. But there is something almost subversive about a used book store in 2015. According to the experts, this place shouldn’t exist.

The thought was that printing on paper was a thing of the past. Digital was less expensive, took up almost no space, and could recreate anything found in print, word for word. So, like record players when people started listening to tapes or CDs, bookstores were suddenly obsolete. Except people still love vinyl.

Enter the Millennials—known for both bucking and setting trends—and their ironic allegiance to hard copy books. According to a recent Washington Post article, the people who grew up online would rather log off to read a novel. Say what you will about kids these days, no generation has ever been as willing to bail on conventional wisdom if it doesn’t make sense, whether it’s owning a TV or paying money for digital literature.

There have been some merciful casualties in the digital revolution. Sets of encyclopedias, for example, have been replaced by updated and searchable information online. Anyone who researched anything in the previous century will admit that this is an improvement. But reading is more than research.

A reader wants to be immersed in a novel with no distractions, to feel a connection with no barriers, and to read for hours with no reminders of real life. We spend so much time on our devices, scanning more than reading. What’s available online is so manic and vast that we chunk it up into small, manageable pieces for comprehension and sanity. Literature, on the other hand, demands to be swallowed whole.

And if books have value, bookstores are nearly priceless. It may be easier to download a novel onto your kindle (if you know your password), but it’s also somewhat mechanical and impersonal. It might be impractical to carry several heavy books, but it’s also kind of fun. Meanwhile, a trip to a bookstore like Pro Libris is a tangible reminder that there is more to a book than what appears on its pages, whether they’re made of paper or pixels.



Hunter Smith

About Hunter Smith

Hunter lives in Bangor with his wife and two kids. He works as a Christmas tree farmer and enjoys being outside...most of the time. Originally from Dixmont, he is a UMaine graduate, Red Sox fan, and Scorpio. Although sometimes restless, he is never bored.